Beside the annals of august periodicals of The New York Times, The Atlantic and The New Yorker, “Popeye” lay preserved in a glass case, telling its first draft of history.
On the second floor west wing of the Oviatt Library, a comic book exhibit composed of works from every genre and decade spanning from early last century to the present are on display until Aug. 3.
“A lot of people over the years have looked at comics as a mirror of society especially because many comics seem to be very unrefined, motivated by commercial considerations and produced quickly,” English professor Charles Hatfield said. “That’s true of a lot of comics, so they have a way of showing, without reflection and without the hesitation, what was going on at a particular time. That’s what we call reflection theory”
Hatfield maintains comics are not passive mirrors. Rather, they push back, affecting the society from which they are a product. An example of reflection is the comic “V for Vendetta,” which was a reaction to British government and policy.
“You might be studying these things as you would study works of literature,” Hatfield said. “You might be studying these things the way you would study a time capsule. You open up a time capsule and you see what was there generations ago. And that gives you an immediate window on what things were like back then.”
On Tuesday, March 6, at noon, Hatfield, who teaches a course on comics as literature, will discuss comics research in the Oviatt’s presentation room.
“Some of the research is literary, some is artistic, historical and cultural,” Hatfield said. “You might be studying these things as graphic art, illustration, journalism and advertising. Comics intersect all these areas. That’s what’s fun about researching them.”
The exhibit features comics from the library’s collections of illustrator Chase Craig, who worked for Dell Comics as one of the first to draw Bugs Bunny and Porky pig.
On display is a letter written to Craig from Elzie Segar at around the time of the 1929 stock market crash containing a drawing of Segar’s new character: Popeye the Sailor Man.
“There’s this window on what was happening on this cartoonist’s desk in the fall of 1929, just a few weeks before he introduced the most famous character that he ever made,” Hatfield said.
Literature has until recently been a constrictive term reserved for only entirely written works.
“The idea of literature has to grow and expand. That’s probably a sign of health and relevancy. That it can grow and expand without sacrificing its standards,” Hatfield said. “A lot of us in this English department know that literature is a moving target. So what we get to teach now is not quite the same range of things that were taught here, let’s say, in the early 60s in the early days of our university.”
The preservation of comics, or ephemera used to characterize a short-lived work is necessary to view the work as a whole. The scarcity of reprints forces researchers to go to the original work.
“Comics are not only text, they are works of visual art. Without destroying them you can’t break up the original way in which they were published,” Hatfield said.
To understand a comic, it must be placed in its era for it to provide important historical and societal insight.
“For me it’s never just about comics as an unthinking reflection of what’s going on in society,” Hatfield said. “It’s also the fact that the great comics have a very peculiar way of looking at things and have a personality that’s distinctive.”